Helen Dunmore’s remarkable new novel Exposure will take you on an emotional journey of forbidden love and the deepest betrayal. In light of her new book, the author reflects on the process of reading in an essay that explores how we read not just with our eyes, but with our hearts.
We read not only with our eyes, but with our hearts.
Every sense is in play. We shudder with fear, weep, laugh aloud, blaze with anger, are seduced, aroused, enchanted. We read with our senses of taste and smell, with skin and brain and intuition. We read intellectually, erotically, emotionally. We read in order to understand our lives, to become what we are not, and through this to question what we are.
For a few hours we enter the minds and bodies of lovers, criminals, artists. We are insiders, present as latitude is discovered or Anne Boleyn murdered. We enter the minds of explorers and scientists, even though we may not be able to do the maths. Ages fly before us, and we step on to other continents. Our identity shifts. We discover what it is like to be inside the skin of a murderer, or that of a detective. We understand other languages, even if we do not speak them, and become insiders in other cultures and on different continents.
We come to know ways of living and loving that we may never experience; and ways of suffering, too. Big Brother really is watching us, as we sense our own weakness and aptitude for betrayal in the face of implacable totalitarianism. In the company of Primo Levi or Anne Frank we learn what it is like for sheltered, middle-class young people to be hunted down like prey. Reading strips away the comfort of being a spectator, because the reader is always engaged, always a participant.
We take all this for granted, perhaps because it begins so early, with nursery rhymes about blackbirds baked in pies, and fairy-tales of princesses forced to sweep floors and endure the jealous rage of their elders. In fiction, trains have faces and are spiteful, lazy or loyal. Animals speak, genies grant wishes and tigers come to tea. Children accept it all, revelling in the quirks and loving the humour. On goes the river of reading, from Peter Rabbit to Narnia, widening and deepening until we find our own footholds in the flood of words and decide what we like. The process is every day and yet so mysterious that it thwarts analysis.
To me it always seems one of the most astonishing things that human beings do, on a par with dreaming, dying and giving birth. We can use a written code to open to one another the intricate whorls of our minds. There is no thought or emotion which cannot be contained in words. No rhythm, however subtle, will be missed by the reader’s ear, which stumbles on a clumsy sentence and yields to the pull of perfectly judged pace.
Reading has the power to name and define experiences which would otherwise remain incommunicable. Without words we remain locked within the islands of ourselves, but by reading we create bridges which join us.
Read the full version of Helen Dunmore’s essay ‘On Reading’ in the ‘Independent bookshop only’ hardback edition of Helen Dunmore’s new novel, Exposure – a Cold War thriller about buried secrets, forbidden passion and personal betrayal.